The overworked inspectors responsible for identifying safety shortcomings in cars failed to note problems with ignition switches in GM cars and lack the resources and protocols to pinpoint future safety problems, according to a new report and congressional testimony Tuesday by the Department of Transportation's top watchdog.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Office of Defects Investigation missed opportunities to investigate problems in GM cars with airbags and ignition switches, which have been linked to over 100 deaths, Inspector General Calvin Scovel told a Senate hearing. The accompanying report was commissioned in response to GM's recall of 8.7 million vehicles for faulty ignition switches in order to assess whether the NHTSA should have identified problems earlier.
Senators immediately criticized the agency.
"This audit report is one of the worst I've ever seen in terms of a government agency," said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). "This is about blatant, incompetent mismanagement."
Failure to properly collect, interpret, and investigate data "resulted in significant safety concerns being overlooked," Scovel said.
The investigative office fails to verify information provided by car manufactures, despite knowing that reports sometimes mischaracterize and downplay incidents – for example, avoiding use of the word "fire," in accident reports – according to the report.
Auditors were told the office relies on the honor system.
"The honor system just doesn't work," Center for Auto Safety Executive Director Clarence Ditlow said in an interview, arguing that car companies have an incentive to downplay potential problems: "A recall is something that affects the bottom line."
GM's characterization of some issues may have "masked potential trends" about safety problems, according to the report.
Even when inspectors do identify questionable reports, investigations can take years. Despite learning in 2004 that an unnamed major recreational vehicle manufacturer had failed to report death and injury data, the defects investigation office waited almost a decade to take action, Scovel told senators.
Staff members responsible for reviewing consumer reports of accidents, meanwhile, are overburdened and undertrained, Scovel said. A single staff member is responsible for reviewing an average of 330 incoming complaints per day and deciding which to investigate further, and staff responsible for spotting trends in complaints have no training in statistics, his investigation found. One person assigned to review cases related to airbags had no training in airbags and no engineering background.
According to the report, the office investigates only about 10% of consumer complaints about safety, using an inconsistent process for deciding which merited more research. For the years where data were available, only 3% of the complaints related to recalled vehicles were investigated. One staff member told investigators he relies on his "gut feeling" when determining which investigations to pursue.
In his testimony, NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said the administration would work to implement the report's recommendations within one year, but also argued he needs a bigger budget to fund improvements in investigations. Rosekind, who has been on the job less than a year, testified that the budget is 23 percent lower than it was 10 years ago when adjusted for inflation.
"Gaps in our available personnel, technology, and authority are a known risk," Rosekind said.
McCaskill, though, said she thought resources alone would be insufficient to address the issues.
"I'm not about to give you more money until I see meaningful progress on reforming the internal processes in this organization," she said.
Advocates for reform, meanwhile, say they worry that the next major safety issue could go undetected for long stretches again unless significant changes are made.